It was during a relaxing cruise down the Amazon that the unthinkable occurred. My wife, Deb, and I have traveled the world for years, taking on epic adventures from cycling the continent of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town to driving an old beat-up car from England to Mongolia. We’ve been to the far north of Canada trekking on frozen lakes and rivers in the dead of winter, and we’ve climbed to Everest Base Camp and the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. If something was ever to happen, it surely should have been on one of these zany adventures.
The adventurous duo camping in Mongolia (Photo: The Planet D)
But it was during a leisurely cruise through the Amazon River with International Expeditions that the unthinkable occurred. While waiting for everyone from our riverboat to assemble on land for a jungle hike, I decided at the last minute to run back to the boat to grab a piece of camera gear.
With my two camera bodies strapped around my neck, I reached the skiff boat that we had arrived on. I hopped over a couple of logs and jumped onto the boat with ease. As I stepped onto the steel steps leading into the hull of the skiff, my feet slipped out from under me. Before I had a chance to react, I found myself flat on my back, screaming in agony. The full force of my body weight and my back hit the metal stairs.
Dave and Deb before the accident, posing on the very steps where Dave slipped. (Photo: The Planet D)
I had never felt such profound pain in my life, and all I thought was, “Oh God, I’ve just broken my back.” In an instant I saw my life change before my eyes. Would I ever be able to walk again?
Lying there in shock, I heard Deb’s voice. She was screaming my name, asking, “Are you OK?” I remember thinking, “I can hear her voice anywhere, even in a crowded room.” I wiggled my toes, and a rush of relief flowed through my body. Knowing that I could still feel my legs was comforting, but the pain was unbearable. I couldn’t move anything without stabbing pain, and I couldn’t say anything except “My back, my back.”
Luckily, there was a nurse on the expedition with us, and she got to me right away. Everyone else was frozen with fear, unsure of what to do.
The nurse told everyone not to move me, and she looked for a way to secure me as she examined my injuries. She decided that I had to be moved to a better position. I was contorted and wedged in on the floor by the steps.
They put pads in the front and back of me and tried to stabilize my spine. Deb and a guide leaned up against me to keep me stable on the bench as they put a board with ice-cold cloths on my back for 45 minutes while deciding what to do.
The other passengers had gone on the jungle hike, and our expedition leader was out on the river trying to get a signal on the satellite phone to call for air support. We were deep in the Amazon jungle, and it was going to be an ordeal to get me out.
After everyone returned, we went directly back to the ship. Between the heat, humidity, and pain, I didn’t think I could take it much longer. The crew waited at the gangway to help carry me to my room, but the hallway was too narrow to get the backboard through the door. I had to be loaded back onto the skiff boat to be taken to the balcony, where they loaded me through the door.
Dave in the skiff boat (Photo: The Planet D)
I spent the next four hours in a fog. Deb ran in and out of the room, giving me updates on the search for a plane. A storm was in the area, and they couldn’t find a plane to fly us out. They considered calling in the Peruvian army. She was on the satellite phone with our insurance company, and they assured her that we were fully covered, so we should do what needed to be done to get me out of there.
It was four hours before a floatplane arrived. I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink, and now my entire body was seizing up. I had been lying on my side for nearly five hours.
The tiny floatplane that took Dave to the small village for help (Photo: The Planet D)
They brought the boat around to my balcony and loaded me back on with the help of five or six men. Deb was terrified that they’d drop me in the water, but all I could think of was that I’d be at the hospital in 30 minutes and have something for my pain.
It wasn’t easy getting me into the tiny plane. I couldn’t move or sit up, so they had to take a seat out and lay me on the floor. Strapped to the cushions from the boat, I was put in the back of the plane while Deb went up front with the pilot. I breathed a sigh of relief once we took off.
But the celebration was short-lived. I couldn’t see or hear anything that was going on, but within minutes of taking off, I felt the plane descend. Deb gave me the grim news that a storm surrounded us, and we’d have to wait it out. The pilot tied a rope from the plane to a tree, and we floated in the middle of the Amazon waiting for the storm to pass. It seemed like hours as the thick air engulfed the cabin. I thought I would lose my mind. I wondered how all this movement and time were affecting my back … and how serious was my injury.
After what seemed like an eternity, the pilot started the engine and we took off again. Every bump was excruciating, but I now knew I’d feel relief soon. The fumes from the engine puffed into my lungs as I breathed in the exhaust from where I lay on the floor. Every inch of my body hurt.
Soon I felt the plane descend, and I felt tears well up in my eyes. I was about to find out how serious my injury was. But it was not to be. Once we landed, Deb said, “I’m so sorry, Dave, we’re not there yet.” The storm was getting worse, and the pilot had to land again.
This time, he drove the plane to a village on the river, and without a word, he got out of the plane, tied it off, and handed the other end of the rope to a child. We floated on the Amazon as he disappeared up the bank. I asked Deb what was going on as I kept repeating, “I can’t take it any longer.” She told me that we were at a small village, and the entire population had come out to look at us.
After a while, a group of men came back with the pilot. They picked me up, carried me through the village, and loaded me into a Moto taxi. At this point, I felt nothing but despair. I had no idea what was happening, and the pain was constant. Deb got in the back of the Moto taxi with me, and we drove through the very bumpy streets until we finally reached a hospital.
In pain in the Moto taxi (Photo: The Planet D)
I was loaded onto a makeshift ambulance to be transported to Iquitos, the only city in the Amazon. I was still strapped to the cushions and pillows, and I hadn’t moved for hours. I felt delirious from pain, heat, and lack of food and water. If I didn’t get to the hospital soon, I thought I’d lose my mind.
It was another hour in the ambulance, with Deb holding on to keep me stable. At this point, more than 10 hours had passed since my fall. We arrived at a hospital in Iquitos, and a representative from International Expeditions was waiting for us. Nobody could speak English in this part of country, so we were grateful for the help with translation. Within a few minutes, they gave me some painkillers, and I started to drift off.
I found out that I had fractured two vertebrae in my back, and I spent the next week in a drug-induced fog. Deb worked tirelessly with International Expeditions and American Express Travel Insurance to sort out all the paperwork to get me home. Seven days later, an air ambulance was sent from Canada to transport me home, where I spent another eight days in the hospital.
The air ambulance that took Dave home was fully covered by his travel insurance, fortunately. (Photo: The Planet D)
Dave in the air ambulance. (Photo: The Planet D)
It was three months before I was fully recovered, but I recovered and I’m grateful for all the help I received from strangers, from our tour company, and from insurance.
What a trooper! Dave in rehab. (Photo: The Planet D)
It could have been worse, and although it was frightening and painful, I now never take one moment for granted.
Check out our original adventure travel series “A Broad Abroad.”